Brendan Kennelly (1936-2021)

Brendan Kennelly (1936-2021)


We are immensely saddened by the news of the death of Brendan Kennelly, aged 85. 

He was being cared for at the Áras Mhuire nursing home in Listowel, Co. Kerry. He had not been well since a heart bypass operation, retiring from Trinity College, Dublin in 2005, and later moving from Dublin to be with family in Kerry. He died on the evening of 17 October, surrounded by his family.

Tributes have been pouring in from across the world, including from the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, Taoiseach Micheál Martin (Prime Minister of Ireland), and actress Mia Farrow. Some of these have been posted on Bloodaxe's Twitter page here.

President Michael D. Higgins posted this tribute:

"As one of those who had the great fortune of enjoying the gift of friendship with Brendan Kennelly for many years, it is with great sadness that I have heard of his passing. As a poet, Brendan Kennelly had forged a special place in the affections of the Irish people. He brought so much resonance, insight, and the revelation of the joy of intimacy to the performance of his poems and to gatherings in so many parts of Ireland. He did so with a special charm, wit, energy and passion. […] He took the responsibility that he saw in the writer’s life with a sense of being asked to share what was most human, universal.  He was faithful to what he saw as a gift that had been given with expectation of a delivery that would draw on all experience including that of Kerry, its people and stories."

The full text of the President's extended tribute can be read here.

Brendan Kennelly was one of Ireland’s most distinguished and best loved poets, as well as a renowned teacher and cultural commentator. Born in Ballylongford, Co. Kerry, the son of publican Timothy Kennelly, he studied at Trinity College Dublin and taught there from 1963. He was Professor of Modern Literature at Trinity from 1973 to 2005. He was also a visiting professor in the US at Barnard College (1971), Swarthmore College (1971-72) and Boston College (2007).  His poetry was first published in Britain by Bloodaxe Books in 1987, and then in the UK and Ireland from 1990, when Bloodaxe published A Time for Voices, the first of several selected editions of Brendan Kennelly’s poetry.

He published over 30 books of poetry, including Familiar Strangers: New & Selected Poems 1960-2004 (2004), which includes the whole of his book-length poem The Man Made of Rain (1998). He was best-known for two controversial poetry books, Cromwell, published in Ireland in 1983 and in Britain by Bloodaxe in 1987, and his epic poem The Book of Judas (1991), which topped the Irish bestsellers list: a shorter version was published by Bloodaxe in 2002 as The Little Book of Judas. His third epic, Poetry My Arse (1995), did much to outdo these in notoriety. All these remain available separately from Bloodaxe, along with his more recent titles: Glimpses (2001), Martial Art (2003), Now (2006), Reservoir Voices (2009), The Essential Brendan Kennelly: Selected Poems, edited by Terence Brown and Michael Longley, with audio CD (2011), and Guff (2013).

His drama titles include When Then Is Now (2006), a trilogy of his modern versions of three Greek tragedies (all previously published by Bloodaxe): Sophocles’ Antigone and Euripides’ Medea and The Trojan Women. His Antigone and The Trojan Women were both first performed at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin, in 1986 and 1993 respectively; Medea premièred in the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1988, toured in England in 1989 and was broadcast by BBC Radio 3. His other plays include Lorca’s Blood Wedding (Northern Stage, Newcastle & Bloodaxe, 1996).

His translations of Irish poetry are available in Love of Ireland: Poems from the Irish (Mercier Press, 1989). He has edited several anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Irish Verse (1970/1981), Ireland’s Women: Writings Past and Present, with Katie Donovan and A. Norman Jeffares (Gill & Macmillan, 1994), and Dublines, with Katie Donovan (Bloodaxe Books, 1995), and published two early novels, The Crooked Cross (1963) and The Florentines (1967).

His Journey into Joy: Selected Prose, edited by Åke Persson, was published by Bloodaxe in 1994, along with Dark Fathers into Light, a critical anthology on his work edited by Richard Pine. John McDonagh’s critical study Brendan Kennelly: A Host of Ghosts was published in The Liffey Press’s Contemporary Irish Writers series in 2004. His anthology The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me – co-edited with Neil Astley – is due from Bloodaxe in 2022. For links to his Bloodaxe titles see this page.

Brendan Kennelly married the American academic and poet Peggy O'Brien in 1969. They were divorced after 18 years. Their daughter Doodle (Kristen) Kennelly died earlier this year. The Brendan Kennelly Literary Archive at Trinity College was launched online by President Michael D. Higgins in April on Brendan's 85th birthday.

Brendan Kennelly: born Ballylongford, Co. Kerry, 17 April 1936; died, Listowel, Co. Kerry, 17 October 2021.


The Irish Times published a series of tributes to Brendan Kennelly by poets, professors and publishers on 18 October which can be read here. The tributes are by Gerard Smyth, Michael Longley, Katie Donovan, John McAuliffe, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Maureen Kennelly, Gerald Dawe, Victoria Kennefick, Joseph O'Connor, Peter Fallon, Theo Dorgan, John O'Donnell, Kevin Rafter, Conor O'Callaghan, Alan Gillis, Neil Astley and Hayden Murphy.  Illustrated with many wonderful photographs of Brendan.


Richard Pine: Obituary in The Guardian, online 31 October 2021.  Read here.  In print 22 December 2021.

An obituary was published online in The Times of 15 November 2021. In print 16 November 2021.  Read here (register to read for free).

The Sunday Business Post, 24 October 2021.  Cover story in the magazine on 24 October. Tribute to Brendan Kennelly by Dermot Bolger.

‘In his work, he managed the feat of being a celebrant of light and an uplifting laureate of the unquenchable qualities of renewal and rebirth that lie in the human heart, while simultaneously being determined never to gloss over the darkness within the human condition as well. In his longer, almost monumental works, he allowed his voice to speak almost as a counsel for the defence of those seemingly indefensible fallen figures like Cromwell and Judas, so that the dark side of the human condition coexisted with the celebratory brightness of his early poems like Bread.’ – Dermot Bolger, The Sunday Business Post, paying tribute to Brendan Kennelly

Available in full online by subscription here.


Obituary in The Irish Times, 18 October 2021, can be read here. Opens with an extract from ‘Begin’ from The Essential Brendan Kennelly.


Tribute in the Irish Examiner of 18 October here.  This includes a video of Brendan reciting his poem ‘Begin’ at Listowel Writers’ Week. Brendan Kennelly was presented with the John B. Keane Lifetime Achievement Award at that opening ceremony of Listowel Writers' Week on Wednesday 31 May 2017. The tribute also includes a clip from Neil Astley’s film ‘Driving to Work with Brendan Kennelly’ – the section where Brendan reads ‘I see you Dancing, Father’, from the CD accompanying The Essential Brendan Kennelly: Selected Poems. See full film below.

Obituary in the Irish Examiner: Thomas McCarthy, online 20 October, in print 21 October 2021. Read here.

Gabriel Fitzmaurice pays tribute to Brendan Kennelly in the Irish Examiner of 23 October 2021. Accompanied by Brendan’s poem ‘Begin’.  Read here.

Tribute in the UK-based newspaper the Irish World of 21 October here.


News of Brendan's passing was announced in The Irish Times here, in the Irish Independent here, in the Irish Examiner here.

Trinity College Dublin, where Brendan Kennelly taught from 1963, pays tribute here.  'Remembering Brendan Kennelly' in Trinity News of 18 November here.

The Winter 2021 issue of Trinity Today magazine includes a double page tribute: 'Fond Memories of Brendan Kennelly'.  View here.


BBC News (Europe), online 18 October 2021 - read here.

This report on the BBC News website linked to tweets from Taoiseach Micheál Martin (Prime Minister of Ireland) and BBC journalist Fergal Keane.

Literary Hub, online 18 October 2021.  Read here.

Lit Hub’s tribute includes the video of Brendan reading his poem ‘Begin’ from memory at Listowel Writers’ Week in 2017 in front of a rapt audience.  


TV & Radio Tributes

Television tribute on RTE News (press play to view the piece):


Morning Ireland, RTE Radio 1, Monday 18 October 2021

President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, led tributes to Brendan Kennelly and Máire Mac an tSaoi, both of whom died on 17 October.  Both President Higgins and Gerald Dawe paid tribute to Brendan Kennelly on Morning Ireland.

Tribute from the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. Listen to the clip here.

Tribute from Gerald Dawe, Brendan’s colleague at Trinity, starting with an archive recording of Brendan reading an extract of his poem ‘Begin’.  Listen to the clip here (this cuts the interview short.)

The full interview with Gerald Dawe starts at 46:00. He ended by reading the first part of Brendan’s poem ‘My Dark Fathers’. President Michael D. Higgins’ tribute in full from 1:11:20.

Listen to the full programme here.


Arena, RTE Radio 1, Monday 18 October 2021, 7-8pm

A celebration of the life and work of Brendan Kennelly.

Bloodaxe editor Neil Astley contributed to a half-hour tribute to Brendan Kennelly on RTE Arena on 18 October. Neil first met Brendan in 1985, and has published his poetry since 1987, when Bloodaxe brought out the British edition of Cromwell.  He joined wirter and lawyer John O'Donnell and Trinity College Dublin's Professor Chris Morash to discuss Brendan's extraordinary life and legacy.  John O'Donnell read an extract from ‘My Dark Fathers’, and archive recordings were played of Brendan reading 'Poem from a Three Year Old' and 'Begin'.

Listen here (from 5:38).


CountryWide, RTE Radio 1, Saturday 23 October 2021, 8.10-9am

CountryWide paid tribute to Brendan Kennelly on the progamme on 23 October.  Hannah Quinn Mulligan recounted a very touching story of her personal connection with Brendan Kennelly, which was followed by a recording of Brendan reading his poem ‘Begin’, taken from the CD which accompanies The Essential Brendan Kennelly: Selected Poems.

Listen here.

Last Word, BBC Radio 4, Friday 22 October 2021

Tribute to Brendan Kennelly on BBC Radio 4’s obituary programme Last Word.  Gerald Dawe spoke to presenter Kirsty Lang about his friend and colleague Brendan Kennelly.

Archive clips were played of Brendan introducing and reading the opening of ‘Poem from a Three Year Old’, and further clips of Brendan were used through the programme. Gerald Dawe read the opening of one of his favourite poems, ‘My Dark Fathers’.

‘I’ve no doubt that Cromwell was a breakthrough epic poem, The Book of Judas an extraordinary piece of work, but my own private preferences reside with the Glimpses, as he called it, these tender poems looking back on his childhood – and not so tender.’ – Gerald Dawe, remembering Brendan Kennelly on Last Word

‘A much loved Irish poet: Brendan Kennelly who learnt his storytelling skills growing up in his father’s pub in County Kerry’

Listen here.


Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1, Sunday 14 November 2021, 9.10am

Sunday Miscellany remembered poet Brendan Kennelly in their 14 November edition.  With tributes from Breda Joyce (whom Brendan crowned ‘Queen of Cahir’), Gerald Dawe and Paddy Moran.  Archive recordings of Brendan reading his poems 'Lislaughtin Abbey' and 'Begin' opened and closed the programme.  Breda Joyce also read an extract from ‘Poem from a Three Year Old’.  The two latter poems are included in The Essential Brendan Kennelly: Selected Poems (edited by Terence Brown & Michael Longley).

35-minute version with shorter musical clips: listen here.  Separate podcasts are available for each item.

Listen to the full 45-minute programme here.


Books for Breakfast podcast, online Thursday 25 November 2021

Tributes to Irish poets Máire Mhac an tSaoi and Brendan Kennelly opened the Books for Breakfast podcast on 25 November, in an episode dedicated to the memory of these ‘two really fine poets’.  Peter Sirr read a poem by Máire Mhac an tSaoi in Irish and English translation, while Enda Wyley was remembering first meeting Brendan when he came to her school to give an inspirational talk about poetry. She gave a lovely reading of his poem 'I See You Dancing, Father' (from The Essential Brendan Kennelly: Selected Poems). 

Listen here.


Brendan Kennelly was honoured with the John B. Keane Lifetime Achievement Award.  He was presented with the award at the opening ceremony of Listowel Writers' Week on the evening of Wednesday 31 May 2017. 
Brendan Kennelly was also honoured by the Sunday Independent newspaper in February 2017.  The paper ran their tributes over two weekends on 5 and 11 February 2017.  Both features were accompanied by poems from The Essential Brendan Kennelley: Selected Poems. The four-page feature in Part One included an interview with Brendan Kennelly in County Kerry and concluded with an article by by BBC journalist Fergal Keane.

‘Brendan Kennelly gave words to grief in the finest poem ever written about the Famine.  ‘My Dark Fathers’ is one of the truly great poems to emerge from the fractured history of our island…’ – Fergal Keane, Sunday Independent


Sunday with Miriam, RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday 9 October 2016, 10-11am

Miriam O’Callaghan travelled to Co Kerry to meet Brendan Kennelly, in a special edition of the programme to mark Brendan’s 80th birthday ahead of a tribute event at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin on 23 October 2016.  Brendan spoke to Miriam about his life and career, about growing up in Ballylongford, and about returning to Kerry earlier in 2016.  Brendan read some of his poems, all from memory: ‘I see you dancing, father’, ‘Begin’, ‘Raglan Lane’, an extract from Cromwell and ‘The Gift’. Some of his favourite pieces of music were played.
Click here to listen.
The Poetry Programme: Brendan Kennelly Special, RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday 30 April 2016, 7.30pm

To mark Brendan Kennelly’s 80th birthday, The Poetry Programme celebrated his life and poetry. Julien Clancy visited Ballylongford and spoke with Brendan’s family and friends. The programme also featured archive clips of Brendan speaking on RTÉ Radio and poetry readings from the CD accompanying his Bloodaxe title The Essential Brendan Kennelly.

Click here to listen

To mark Brendan's 80th birthday, Bloodaxe posted audio recordings of five of his most popular poems on SoundCloud, which you can hear by clicking on the links below:
These recordings are taken from The Essential Brendan Kennelly, which is published both in paperback with an accompanying audio CD and as an enhanced ebook with audio, both editions including 36 audio files of Brendan reading his poetry.
You can also see Brendan reading five poems, including 'Begin', on this video link, and reading at Dublin's Abbey Theatre from his collection Reservoir Voices on this video link.


Brendan Kennelly reads five poems

In 2007, Brendan Kennelly had a fellowship at Boston College in the US. Pamela Robertson-Pearce filmed him at his flat on Chestnut Hill on an extraordinarily hot day. The first poem, ‘Love Cry’ is from a sequence of sonnets with that title, and is followed by ‘I See You Dancing, Father’ and ‘Bread’. The next poem, ‘Raglan Lane’, is his response to Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘On Raglan Road’, and has been sung by Mary Black and others (to the tune of ‘The Dawning of the Day’). The last poem, ‘Begin’, was written on recovery from serious illness and widely circulated amongst Irish Americans in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. These five poems are all included in The Essential Brendan Kennelly. The film is from the DVD-anthology In Person: 30 Poets, filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce & edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books, 2008).


Driving to work with Brendan Kennelly

In this film made in September 2011, Bloodaxe editor Neil Astley takes you on what was then his morning commute through the Tarset Valley of Northumberland. He plays the CD which comes with The Essential Brendan Kennelly, and during the short journey, Brendan reads these five poems 'The Visitor', 'Poem from a Three Year Old', 'I See You Dancing, Father', 'My Dark Fathers' and 'Begin'. The additional footage of Brendan reading 'Begin' is from the DVD-book In Person: 30 Poets, filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce & edited by Neil Astley.  Bloodaxe's editorial office is now based in the market town of Hexham, Northumberland.

[17 October 2021]

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